Dissertation research: perceptions of using social media for community engagement

I’ve talked about my MSc dissertation research before on this blog. In fact I originally set up this blog to explore some topics related to my research. Having had a bit of a break after completing my dissertation in August 2010, I have decided to publish it here, spurred on by the kind words of a fellow academic researcher Catherine Howe.

My research question was:

How do the attitudes and perceptions of citizens, Council officers, Councillors to the use of social media for community engagement compare and contrast?

My Master’s Degree was in Human Computer Interaction. If you have a particular interest in research into social media and civic engagement (and quite a bit of time on your hands), I’d recommend the full dissertation (PDF, 2.4 mb).

But if you are a local government officer or someone with less time and patience, then I’d recommend the 10 page (that’s the smallest I could manage!) Executive Summary (PDF, 50kb).

I also wanted to add a little disclaimer. The primary research data was gathered from semi-structured interviews with 18 participants. For purposes of confidentiality the data is not included within either document. Because the research question focused on a relatively new research area, it was challenging to find participants with significant experience of using social media, let alone those with experience of using social media for civic engagement. Whilst the collection and analysis of data followed rigorous qualitative research methods, the quality of the data collected was not as high as I had hoped for. I would therefore advise some caution in the interpretation and application of these research findings.

Please note that the usual Creative Commons copyright license I display on this blog does not apply to the two documents linked above.

You can find me on Twitter if you have any questions, comments, or would like more information about my research.

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In the hotseat…

localbysocial

This Thursday 13th January between 1-4 pm I will be in the hotseat, quite literally! I’m hosting a online question and answer session in the Local by Social Online Conference about the social media project I have been involved with in Fenland, Cambridgeshire.

The project aimed to improve engagement with customer groups who were hard to access in Wisbech. The project has been delivered with funding from the Local Government Delivery Council’s Customer Led Transformation programme.

You need to be a member of the Communities of Practise to participate in the hotseat discussion. To become a member of the Communities of Practice platform you will need to register and  join the Customer Led Transformation CoP. You can then join the hotseat discussion thread where you will find the full project case study and some vox pop videos with people who contributed to the project.

If you would like to know more about the project or ask me anything about using social media to engage customers, do come and contribute to the online discussion on Thursday 13th January, between 1-4 pm

By way of a little background, I’ve written about the project before in these posts:

Update on social media project in Wisbech

Fenland social media project

Digital engagement framework adapted for local government

Digital engagement governance

And you can also visit the project blog or take a look at a presentation I did for the Local by Social online conference last November.


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Budget consultation approaches

Following the Spending Review, significant spending cuts are becoming a reality for many public services. The issue of how to engage citizens in budget consultations to define local priorities is becoming all the more important.

Redbridge have re-launched their YouChoose application for 2010, which allows residents to balance a complex budget using an interactive tool. The tool reveals consequences of your budget choices as you change the sliders to reduce the budget in different areas. There are four main areas to manage the budget within, which drill down to more detail. For example the consequences of reducing funding for Culture, Sport and Leisure results in libraries being closed. Using the tool requires quite a bit of time and may not appeal to people who have limited time on their hands to contribute their views.

Redbridge budget consultation tool

This week Cambridgeshire Constabulary launched a budget balancing tool. It is similar to the Redbridge concept, but with a far simpler interface.

Cambridgeshire Constabulary budget balancing tool

As a resident I gave it a go and had a few thoughts about the approach.

Personally I find these budget calculators a useful educational tool. They help demonstrate how complex budgets are allocated across different areas and how the spending cuts will dramatically affects budgets and therefore the challenges faced by the public sector. They won’t be for everyone though.

Judging by the comments on the Cambridgeshire Constabulary budget tool, some people find the exercise trivial, whilst others find it useful and insightful. Other people worry about the impact of their decisions and whether they are sufficiently well informed to prioritise budgets. The comments also reveal some interesting political perspectives and, occasionally, what I found to be less than palatable opinions. But that’s what a democracy is all about I guess!

However, as a resident what I would really like to do is enter into an active discussion with other residents, politicians and the organisation whose budget I am making choices about. For me these tools are the start of a consultation and conversation. I know that this approach would require resources for facilitation and moderation, but in my mind the type of decisions that need to be made to address the budget deficit require that depth of engagement. I would like to see these tools linked into hyperlocal websites, or a platform that is designed for deliberation, rather than leaving me wondering how residents’ choices are being reviewed and considered by those setting the budgets.

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Customer Insight in Public Services 2010

Just a quick post about the Customer Insight in Public Services conference that I attended today. I was speaking about a partnership social media project in Wisbech, which was funded by Communities and Local Government.

There were some really useful presentations. One that stood out for me was the work Lewisham Council had been doing, using customer insight techniques to drive improvements to public services.

A variety of case studies were presented and some of the customer insight techniques discussed included:

  • intensive ethnography, leading to radical service re-design;
  • video diaries, sketching and visioning with staff;
  • cartoon strips to communicate services to service users;
  • customer journey mapping.

Given my interest in research techniques for human-computer interaction, I feel it’s really positive to see techniques like this being used within local government. Especially where staff are trained to use the techniques themselves. I do worry that the current budget cuts will mean that these techniques are viewed as a “nice to have” in service transformation projects.

In a few of the case studies presented today we learnt that real efficiencies were typically gained as a by-product of using customer insight to design customer-centric services. One Council reported that involving staff in customer insight work had increased morale and reduced sickness levels. Not what you might expect, within a service transformation project that involves significant changes for staff and customers.

I particularly enjoyed a presentation by Andres Crespo from Brent Council about their Brent Going Green campaign. The purpose of the campaign was to use social media to engage customers who had not been reached through other forms of engagement. As Andres pointed out, with access to mobile phones and the internet these days, it’s not that people are hard to reach, but they are hard to engage. Andres shared some heartfelt experiences about the effort it takes to engage customers using social media, but he also demonstrated how rewarding and valuable that effort can be.

Here are the slides from the presentation I did with Inspector Paul Ormerod, from Cambridgeshire Constabulary.


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A digital engagement framework adapted for local government

I’ve been doing a bit of research into citizen engagement models for my MSc research and started to think about how these models relate to digital engagement. I looked at various models and frameworks and combined them to help me conceptualise digital engagement.

Firstly I evaluated the participation model provided by David Wilcox in his 1994 participation framework, which was based on Sherry Arnstein’s ‘ladder of participation’ from 1969.

Wilcox’s participation levels

Arnstein ladder of participation

Arstein’s ladder of participation

I noticed some similarities with Charlene Li’s and Josh Bernoff’s ladder of Social Technograph profiles. The profiles are based on survey research into consumer participation in social technologies. The ladder was recently updated to include a category for Twitter users!

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Google Wave as the future of citizen consultation

I’ve been looking around at quite a few emerging ideas and practise for public engagement recently. At the moment consultation processes in local government are generally still fairly archaic and ‘having your say’ might mean filling out a survey or attending a public meeting, exhibition or focus group.

The Power of Information report highlighted a few good examples of online consultations and made a sound recommendation as follows:

Implementing the tools – readily available elsewhere on the internet – which allow people to comment on individual items, to comment on other’s comments and to collaborate in developing and improving the content (perhaps through the sort of collective authorship we see on Wikipedia); the publication by DIUS of the Innovation White Paper and the Cabinet Office New Opportunities White Paper in this way are good examples of what can be done without major investment

I really liked the concept of Big City Talk in Birmingham, which was developed by a group of volunteers using WordPress, and allowed the public to read a lengthy planning consultation document in Plain English and add comments.

But even as Councils are getting themselves up to speed with the idea of responding to (and moderating) online comments within a couple of hours, a new tool is about to appear which demands realtime interaction. Google is due to launch its much anticipated communications tool Google Wave on September 30th and (apparently) it might just change how we communicate online completely.

Now I haven’t actually given Google Wave a go, but I have read lots of hype. So I was thinking about how the future of online consultation in 3-5 years could be a very different ball game indeed. Imagine this scenario…

You are invited to attend an online consultation about the local Council’s plans to build a major new housing development, which will provide affordable housing. The meeting is going to be relatively short, about 45 minutes.You start by viewing a short video about the development proposal and you look at interactive maps of the plans. You read associated snippets of documents. Then as the online consultation really gets underway, you join in discussions in realtime, along with other citizens, councillors, council officers and the developers. During the discussions further snippets of document, images and video are added by the participants relating to the points that are discussed.  The facilitators focus the discussions on key themes. The discussions are fairly open and the facilitators invite you to take part in opinion polls as the discussions progress. The facilitator brings the meeting to a close and thanks the participants for taking part. After the meeting you replay some of the discussions that took place and read through some of the threads that you missed during the meeting. A couple of days later the Council post a formal response to all the points which couldn’t be addressed in the meeting, in context within the original discussions.

Well I might be naive in thinking this type of consultation might actually happen, in such an open and transparent way. Plus it could be a facilitators nightmare! But I can dream a little.

Update 07/09:

I wanted to add an addendum to this post. A friend who recently did an interesting talk on Google Wave at UXCampLondon suggested to me on Twitter “discussion could be hosted on council’s website, so people who are not on #googlewave could also read and comment“. I thought this was a great idea, so wanted to add it to this post.

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Google LocalGov

Yesterday I attended an event for LocalGov people at Google’s very plush offices in London. The day was put together by the Google LocalGov team and Dave Briggs helped coordinate arrangements and publicity. The event covered a broad range of Google’s products, some of the new innovations at Google and offered a wealth of advice and insight. I can’t cover all the topics in this post in depth, so I’ll focus on a few that interested me personally.

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